There’s nothing easy about writer/director Tilman Singer’s debut Luz. In some ways, a pastiche of a specific time but in others a completely singular vision that surprises, not least of which because it was a film thesis project (!). A narrative puzzle-box that expects the audience to be on the same page so that it can dodge past most exposition, it is a mystery of small budget inventiveness.
As piano keys thunk away in the background, crinkled with static, a very long shot opens on the very empty intake at a police station. On the left, a solitary man works the desk. On the right, taxi driver Luz Carrara (Luana Velis) shambles, dazed, through the doors and to a soda machine. After selecting a drink, she continues her shamble to the man, who continues to ignore her. She asks him a question that he ignores, holding up his hand. And so she shouts again, her voice augmented with reverb, “Is this how you wanna live your life?!”
At the same time (maybe), a man sits, drinking at a bar. Once in awhile he checks his beeper, which seems to have caught the eye of a woman across the bar. The man is Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt), a consulting psychologist and psychiatrist. The woman desperately trying to get his attention is Nora Vanderkurt (Julia Riedler) and when she discovers his occupation, her attention is immediately piqued. She sidles over and tells him the most odd story, “My girlfriend just jumped out of her moving taxi.” She then takes a bump of cocaine hidden in her necklace, before dumping the rest out into her drink.
Meanwhile, back at the police station, officers Bertillon (Nadja Stübiger) and Olarte (Johannes Benecke) interview the dazed Luz, trying to determine what exactly happened. The two stories begin to crisscross, as the story slowly unspools the relationship between Luz and Nora and their mysterious past at a Catholic boarding school where a ritual might have summoned a demon.
There’s an awful lot going on in Luz’s slight 70 minute runtime and as ambiguous as my little synopsis is above, I feel like this is one of those movies best experienced for yourself. It’s odd. I feel like I could describe the entire plot beats and still not explain the movie, but with its cleverly non-linear puzzle box structure, it’d be a shame to really dive in. After a brief opening, Luz is mostly staged in a single location, as an interview between Dr. Rossini and Luz as they try to get to the bottom of the accident and her mysterious past. While I call it an interview, the way its filmed makes it feel larger and more cinematic than you’d expect.
For instance, one of the techniques employed is hypnosis and so the police station takes on the feel of Luz’s taxi cab. Luz pantomimes her actions, changing gears, looking in the rear view mirror, grabbing luggage, etc., all with audio cues and quick camera shots to emphasize the action. It works, mostly because of Tilman’s directing, Paul Faltz’s framing and the sound design by Jonas Lux. The techniques at play really sell the hypnosis in a way that makes it exciting to watch. In order to get to a specific truth, Dr. Rossini begins to insert himself into the proceedings, changing costume and characters as needed. As Luz’s complicated and ambiguous past starts to unravel, the narrative begins to spiral in interesting directions that make you question what’s really going on. And who the heroes and villains really are.
The time period is as ambiguous as the narrative. Luz’s outfit and style looks straight from the grungy 90s, while the beeper feels like a relic from the 80s and the 16mm film stock feels old and dirt-specked, as if we’d seen a used copy of the film as it toured grindhouse theatres in the 70s. The score, meanwhile, flirts with 70s demonic/religious horror movies with choral chants, but occasional flourishes of retro synths suggests Italian Gallo films. It wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but like this year’s Knife+Heart, it doesn’t feel imitative of them. In some ways, it feels like a lost artifact.
What a strangely audacious and yet assured debut from Tilman Singer. It surprises me that not only is this his first feature film, but that, like Hagazussa, Luz began life as a film thesis project. Like Hagazussa, it feels unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time. I love the story inside a story as the psychiatrist begins to question and, in some ways, orchestrate Luz’s past. The movie is a puzzle box that never truly reveals its entire hand and I can’t wait to see what Singer does next.